Once described in the British press as “the biggest threat to our youth since Hitler,” by the mid Eighties, John Lydon had come a long way from Anarchy In The UK. He was living in America, a permanent holiday in endless sun by Los Angeles’s swanky Venice Beach.
But the one-time Johnny Rotten’s basic character hadn’t changed much: he was as brutally honest and frank as ever with hypocrites, liars, fools and hippies (Never Trust A Hippy, remember?), all the while confessing he could be any of the first three himself. If people didn’t get the sardonic, self-mocking humour fuelling Johnny’s acid anger more fool them.
After the Sex Pistols’ implosion, the formation of Public Image Ltd allowed Lydon pursue a more experimental, bass-heavy “anti-rock” project that incorporated elements of dub, disco and avant-garde noise.
PiL’s late-‘70s rejoinder was a repudiation of punk’s speed, quick-strummed chords and pop choruses. The band’s initial line-up replaced those musical elements with Jah Wobble’s loping bass lines and Keith Levene’s untethered guitar parts, embracing dissonance and opening up spaces that the Pistols filled in.
Like most disaffected youths in the Thatcher’s Britain of the day, I witnessed PiL’s heady headline set on Channel 4’s The Tube live as it happened one dark Friday evening in October 1983. It was my first time seeing them perform on the tellybox too.
Also, like my teenage rampagers, I remember being unpleasantly surprised at how the producers of the new ‘alternative’ television station’s flagship music show tried to damn down the spirits of some pogoing punks in the audience once Anarchy descended. It was enough to make Jimmy Savile* squirm in his morgue.
It smacked more of the patrician BBC than C4. But despite the Blue Peter-like approach from this supposedly ‘anti-establishment’ channel (A Tube runner had warned him beforehand not to swear), the singer spat out his vitriolic lyrics with as much venom as ever, despite his public complaint that “I’m John, I’ve got flu,” gleefully gobbing up a greenie to prove it.
He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But, like his LA neighbour Frank Sinatra before him, when Johnny feels rotten it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. John Lydon has a cold.
The sneezy, snarling version of the quintet’s current single This Is Not A Love Song was, naturally, the big business opportunity. And somewhat ironic seeing the song was a sarcastic “Let’s Make Lots of Money” response to those who saw Lydon as a sellout. The bellicose belligerent was still capable of épater la bourgeoisie when he wanted to be.
Guess what? This really isn’t a love song. We know this because Lydon repeats the title 44 times. Oh, he was good. Having said that, it wasn’t until a friend played me the four-track 12-inch the following year that I felt sufficiently inclined to buy into the PiL poptone society myself.
Featuring the group’s debut, the signature song that is the Public Image, and a stark, shark-infested comedy number about Blue Water (the wet stuff not the shopping centre, which had yet to be built), even today I marvel at that expertly designed embossed sleeve with Dennis Morris’s imperious, iconic band logo. So Hi Fleur of Stony Stratford, wherever you are now, and thanks.
The promotional video for This Is Not A Love Song was filmed in Century City, a flashy business district in West Los Angeles developed on the former backlot of Fox Studios. Lydon plays the role of a tubby-waisted tycoon, riding around in a classic car as he looks over his high rise kingdom. Westside.
By 1984’s patchy, piecemeal This Is What You Want, This Is What You Get, Levene and Wobble had rumbled off and PiL had devolved into what was ostensibly a solo vehicle for Lydon, which saw the outfit’s style mutating into a more compressed and less spacious sound. An army of one then.
And although Love Song was the band’s biggest hit (their only Top 10 single, alas), the one that’s endured as the best known PiL song, and a track that continues to echo down through the decades, would be Rise.
And what an exhilarating epic it is too.
Elsewhere, L. Shankar’s percussive and drone violin parts are gorgeously tonal, while ace axe shredder Steve Vai’s visceral guitars weave in and out of the vocals, riffing on three major-key chords and even slipping in a subtle Jimmy Page riff. One of the other key features of Rise was the backing vocals of Bernard Fowler (then of Material, now of the Rolling Stones), who taught Lydon on the sessions how to sustain longer notes.
Overall, Bill Laswell’s production is big, clean and commercial but never dull. This is him talking.
“When we did PiL he had put a band together in California of some kids. And I had sort of decided to make a heavy group, so I invited Tony Williams, Ginger Baker, Steve Vai, and all these people came. We fired John’s band and there were many nights of really harsh arguing in bars. When the smoke cleared, we made sort of a classic record, an unusual record for the time.”
Rise was a taster for the band’s simply titled fifth album Album. Some observers still have issues with the ’80s careering rock vibe that Vai in particular brought to the mix (inexplicably, jazz legend Miles Davis‘s contributions were left on the cutting room floor). For instance, Village Voice’s Robert Christgau gave the album a B+ and claimed “This isn’t a Lydon record that (the conveniently uncredited) Bill Laswell happened to produce, it’s a Laswell record custom-designed for Lydon.”
In a homage to the increasing generic-isation of the 1980s, the cassette was titled Cassette while the CD was naturally, Compact Disc, with all formats sporting cover artwork that copied the generic home brand packaging of products from the American supermarket chain Ralphs. Here’s Johnny with some of their blandly unappetising breakfast cereal.
If Love Song was a capitalist/anti-capitalist riposte, Rise’s message of barbarism shouldn’t begin at home cleverly railed against the politics of two of the world’s most divided countries, South Africa and Northern Ireland. Lydon, the former enfant terrible turned cover star of the poptastic Smash Hits magazine, explained the situation to Tom Hibbert.
“I read this manual on South African interrogation techniques, and Rise is quotes from some of the victims. I put them together because I thought it fitted in aptly with my own feelings about daily existence.”
The horrors of the country’s apartheid regime of institutional racism were by now far from secret – even though Margaret Thatcher would still, a year later, refer to Nelson Mandela‘s ANC as “a typical terrorist organisation”, but what Lydon was was far more personal, his biting lyrics assailing the government of P.W. Botha and their inhumane torture tactics and continued imprisonment of Mandela, filling the song with a passive-aggressive invective that’s turned inward, revealing the vulnerability behind the Rotten mask.
Whether he intended them to express the feelings of an adolescent at one of Britain’s most celebrated historical nerve centres is debatable, but so many of the words resonated with my life in the mid ’80s that it was way out of Lydon’s control.
Those opening lines – “I could be wrong, I could be r-r-right” – first sounded like an admission of confusion coming from my mouth, the subsequent – “I could be black/I could be white” – sounded like it came directly from Michael Jackson‘s.
Though the idea that “the written word is a lie” initially seemed like blasphemy to a juvenile Little Lord Fauntleroy immersed in academia, they opened my eyes to the fact that the books we were reading were not necessarily definitive. Talking of which, Lydon’s response when asked in a contemporaneous Canadian interview is pure telly gold.
Moreover, Rise’s insistently catchy chorus of “May the road rise with you” (a translation of the old Irish blessing “go n-éirí an bothar leat”) is offset by Lydon’s rambling yet powerful verses.
He’s still packing some punch (and munch) in Seattle last year, the only time I’ve seen PiL in concert, thirty-five years and a day after that legendary TV performance.
The disturbingly discordant ending referred to the brutal electric torture interrogation techniques of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, though could have quite easily been a scene right out of A Clockwork Orange, as Irish John goes under the weight of civilisation’s discontents.
“They put a hot wire to my head/Cause of the things I did and said/They made these feelings go away/A model citizen in every way.”
And the way Johnny spits it out leaves you feeling violated by the same self-indictment. “Anger is an energy,” he chants. Repeat to fade. The imposing, mantra-like repetition of “Anger is an energy” is the song’s crown jewel and one of the most memorable refrains in pop. It’s Lydon’s epitaph, too.
A formidable figure of irascible integrity, rock’s antihero had become, against all expectations, a rock hero. In 2014, Lydon, by now unquestionably one of the world’s greatest living Englishmen, appeared on the dear old Aunty Beeb explaining, in a pretty hysterical interview with This Week’s Andrew Neil, how “anger is an energy is flippant, but it’s consistent through everything I do.”
“It’s very folksy,” he later said of the song, “and it’s very emotional. I suppose that’s the first time I really went into that kind of deep empathy with my fellow human beings, rather than like growling and being angst-ridden. I turned anger into an energy.” He turned into a book, too. It’s a funny old world.
Postscript: *In that recently unearthed clip, Lydon talks to Vivienne Goldman about the sleaze bag Jimmy Savile during an interview recorded for BBC radio in late 1978. The excerpt was, unsurprisingly, not broadcast but has recently been made available as part of the reissue of the first PiL album.
“I’d like to kill Jimmy Savile. I think he’s a hypocrite and I bet he’s into all kinds of seediness. They all know that, but we are not allowed to talk about it. I know some rumours. I bet none of this will be allowed out.”
Buffalo Gals at 35: Malcolm McLaren introduces scratching to Britain is here
Anger is an Energy: My Life Uncensored is out now through Simon & Schuster